Wednesday, 2 July 2014

"From The Corner Of His Eye" by Dean Koontz

"He had lost a part of his own physical being: He was hollow inside, as though the very meat and bone at the core of him had been torn out and replaced by a void, black and cold. Horror and despair racked him, and he was tormented by thoughts of self-destruction.

But then he felt better.

Not good, but definitely better."

I can already hear the mutterings from here. Dean Koontz? Really? There's probably a group thinking things like, "What, the horror guy?" and another wondering why the title doesn't read "Odd Thomas". From my experience, Dean Koontz gets a variety of reactions when he's brought up in conversation. But I'm going to try to ignore all of this and focus on a certain novel that is frequently overlooked both by Koontz fans and his detractors as quite possibly his best book. That would be the simply grand "From The Corner Of His Eye" released in the year 2000.

It was the novel that changed his career and lead him through much more well-known works down the road like "One Door Away From Heaven", "Life Expectancy", the "Frankenstein" series, and "The Face", not to mention his aforementioned "Odd Thomas" series. Because this is the book where he went from primarily a thriller writer to a storyteller of a different sort where characters are after more than getting through a single tight situation. This is the book that even the author admits is the one that really pushed him forward to new ground. Yet, it's not very well known despite it. 

So, you might be wondering, what exactly is it about? The answer is a bit hard to go into in a single post, but I'll try. There's something strange about the way this book was received and it has to do with the way it was advertised and presented.

Back of the book:

"This is the story of a boy who loses his sight.
And then mysteriously regains it.
It is the story of a courageous band of seekers.
And a relentless killer.
It is the story of all that is right with the world.
And all that is so terribly wrong.
It is the story of a revelation so terrifying and
so sublime, it can only be glimpsed . . .
From the Corner of His Eye.
Those who dare to look will be changed forever."

Here's the thing with the back blurb: it's not entirely accurate.

Don't get me wrong, those things do happen, but they're not the point of the story. Not by a long shot. The other issue is that it's clearly being marketed as a thriller when the book is anything but a thriller. There are a few tense scenes, but in a story of over 700 pages they form a very, very, small fraction of the story. This is one of the reasons I have a problem with the limited definition of genres we currently have, but that's for another time. For now, let's take a look at the story and why I think it works so well.

I've seen other descriptions of the story and they all center around the same thing: loss of sight, regaining of sight, a killer, and some sort of adventure. The story is not directly about any one of those subjects, some of which don't really happen int eh way they're implied to, they're merely elements of the story. The description on the back of the book is wrong, this story is about a whole lot more than Bartholomew Lampion and a killer that wants him dead. These two elements, in fact, don't really surface until much later in the tale.

So, then, you might be wondering, what exactly is the story about? The answer is, well, a whole lot of things.

The book starts with a death and a birth, and then another death and another birth not much later. Between these two tragic and heartwarming events is the rising of a monster and his shadowone that continues to haunt throughout the tale. We see the hardships and joys of normal life, the envies and passions of our lesser selves, and eventually we come to realize how they all wrap together to a bigger whole. The main character, despite the book description, is not even Bartholomew Lampion, but many other characters that all intersect and come together in strange ways.

The main characters begin with Agnes Lampion, a mother with a steadfast determination to do the right thing under high duress to take care of her newly born son, Barty. We meet her husband, Joe, and her shut-in brothers, Edom and Jacob, as well as her neighbor, Maria Gonzales, who all have an important role to play in her life.

On the other hand, you have professional schmuck, Enoch Cain Jr. (call him "Junior"), relentless homicide detective, Thomas Vanadium, and everything standing between their inevitable confrontation.

Finally, there is the young woman, Seraphim White and her family, not to mention the helpless newborn, Angel, who will all find themselves wrapped in the events to follow. When her story eventually appears, we learn a lot more about the various connections characters have with each other and how they eventually fold into everything.

I'm going to have to go into spoiler territory now, as without discussing the story, I can't really go into the themes. So if you want to see how it all holds together, I highly recommend reading the book. It is well worth it and guaranteed to surprise you.



*START OF SPOILERS*



I'm first going to start with Agnes, as it is through her we see the majority of the story. She must deal with the death of her husband, her son's failing sight, her past of broken family ties, and the growing realization that there is something more to her son than she first thought. Her brothers are not anti-social and alienated purely by choice, but also because their father was highly abusive and made them highly fearful of both natural disasters and common evils. It is hard for either of them to have much faith in the human race. It was only through Agnes that they are even able to function at all and, as a result, they are also highly protective of Barty.

Barty's sight is eventually lost, but somewhere along the line he seems to gain something a bit more. The ability to see "other realities" and other possibilities, to see beyond the world we live in. This includes places where his father never died, or places where he isn't blind. As a result of his suffering, he is given the gift of true sight. This enables him to help those he cares for as well as to find answers to questions he might have never been asked.

On the flip-side, is probably Dean Koontz's most interesting villain, Enoch Cain Junior (Just "Junior") who is a man obsessed with cleanliness and personal advancement. As a result, he leaves the past behind, and the apparently horrible mother he had (Despite his chosen mantle of "Junior", we learn nothing about his father) in order to evolve into human perfection. He seeks self-improvement, fully unaware of the rot he is filled with and how he presents himself to others while making his way in the world. This leads him to not understand a single thing about human nature, including why he decided to push his girlfriend to her death or the many other horrible things he just has the "urge" to do.

His jarring behavior causes him to be pursued by the man with the quarter, Thomas Vanadium, a cop with a tenacious hunger for justice that borders on being too intense, as he hounds Junior throughout the years in public, in private . . . and through mysterious means. Thomas Vanadium is another of Koontz's best characters as a man who can spot evil but struggles against falling to it, almost leading to his end more than once. But one of the highlights in this story in the constant cat and mouse game played between the two which reveal much more about either personality than one would expect.

Junior's reveal as a monster is also woven into the fact that he once raped a young girl in her home, and left her pregnant, without his knowledge given that he barely remembers the full details of why he does things. This young woman, Seraphim White, dies in the hospital giving birth and leaves her daughter in the care of her sister, Celestina, who vows to take care of her for her dearly departed sister. Her father is a popular Reverend who once put out a very popular sermon broadcast on the radio that changed many livesincluding most of the main characters as well as Junior without him even realizing it.

During Junior's psychotic and incoherent ramblings, he centers on the name "Bartholomew" as his target, and, after he learns that the girl he raped had a child, believes it is the name of his son and he is a threat to his livelihood. So, Bartholomew must die. This leads Junior to blame the "boy" for the source of his troubles and becomes his lone goal for living.

Koontz goes out of his way to show the only real divergent ways to live through life. The first is in love with the world we were given and those who live in it, and the other is obsession with the self and the destruction that comes of it. Throughout the story, almost every character is given the choice to do bad or good and each decision always comes back to help or harm them later on. Some characters, like Junior, suffer much because of selfish decisions, or others, like Bartholomew, grow in their suffering because of all the good they spread. The connections are staggering here.

All the connections continue as the sermon Reverend White broadcast was a speech on the least-known apostle of Jesus Christ, St. Bartholomew, and how important he was to the early Christians despite not being well known or talked about in the Bible. It was an inspiring speech about how no matter how small and insignificant you might be, there is a purpose waiting for you out there beyond yourself. Junior overheard this sermon playing from a recorder as he raped the reverend's daughter and was completely unaware as to why this name stuck in him over the years. Not to mention that Barty Lampion was named after this sermon, as well.

It is through a strangely disconnected traveler, Paul Damascus, that the small Angel White meets Bartholomew Lampion and their destinies entangle as Junior finally tracks them down for a final standoff. In the end, he meets his fate as he deserves through his constant rejection of reason for blind forward-thinking and the young ones grow a family of their own. It is by the story's end that Bartholomew's sight truly evolves into something spectacular that can change everything in this world.



*END OF SPOILERS*



What makes this story work so well is how it has about five or six seemingly disconnected stories that are all as enjoyable to read on their own as they are together, and then when they all wind up together in a big ball of confrontations, it is quite rewarding. Every character has a part to play, and every plot-turn has relevance to something else in the story.

That isn't even to mention its portrayal of good and evil as good being a way to find true beauty and purpose in the world and evil as to willfully disconnect from it all for the self. It's not too dissimilar from ourselves when we make good or bad decisions in life. We frequently have the same motives, though not on quite the same scale.

What it reminds me of, is C.S. Lewis' classic "That Hideous Strength" in its portrayal of pure beauty and good contrasted with a terrifying evil uprooted in misunderstandings of basic human nature. Throughout "From The Corner Of His Eye" you see them both in action as they intertwine with each other through character's decisions and choices in life and how they eventually come together to form the world they live in. The author wildly succeeds in his attempts, just as C.S. Lewis did so long ago.

Remember, this is Dean Koontz, a man once thought to be nothing more than a "suspense" novelist to certain groups. Despite the author having been pigeon-holed for so long, this was the book that finally broke him out of the stereotype and gave people a vision of an author who cares deeply about important issues like Truth, Love, and Purpose, as well as how even the evil and wicked can fall into it despite their best attempts to fight against it. It's quite the remarkable tale, and an achievement for him.

Even if you've never given this author a chance, or if you have once a long time ago, be sure to not pass this one by. We need more books like this out there, and I truly thank Mr. Koontz for writing it. It really is quite the story.

"The man who tore the Lampion family's world apart, on the night of Barty's birth, had not been her enemy. He was a stranger, but the chain of his destiny shared a link with theirs."

And that's only the beginning.

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